Canna- The Island Kingdom of Cats

In 1956 internationally renowned folklorist John Lorne Campbell of Canna wrote this elegy to his beloved Siamese cat, Pooni, who died at the ripe old age of 18.

Pooni by Roland Svenssen

Original painting of Pooni by Swedish artist Roland Svenssen

Pooni 3/5/38 – 7/4/56

AN ELEGY

Pooni! Now you have gain’d Elysian fields, where perennial catnip carpets every glade

And every limpid fountain rich cream yields, while foolish rabbits scamper in the shade:

Now you have wow’d your last wow, roll’d your last roll, hook’d your last piece of cheese, and broken your last plate,

Raided the larder once for all, taken your ease, upon the warmest lap, enthroned in state;

What will endure for us in memory, of friendship, playful elegance, and grace

And so we bid you, adieus, farewell. No other cat could take your place.

Such was the respect, love and indeed purrfect subservience, allotted to this Fabulous Feline by his Master and Mistress, the Campbells of Canna, a tiny island on the remote west coast of Scotland, somewhere between the better known Islands of Skye and Mull. Over the course of more than 60 years, renowned Gaelic folklorists John Lorne and Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell were the doting subjects of dozens of feline rulers- canines too, but the cats were the real Kings and Queens.

Canna

Pooni, image by Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell ©National Trust for Scotland

King Pooni (with the ‘wonky’ ear, the result of an ear infection, not a battle!) ruled with a succession of kittens and Queens but always liked to make sure that his Court realised who the Boss was. He even allowed his personal Court Folklorist and sound engineer, John, to record him “expressing his displeasure at the arrival of the new kittens” around 1949.  Listeners will understand how he managed to obtain the nickname “Wowcat”………..

http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/62194/1

Such was the love and esteem bestowed upon this regal feline, that John Lorne Campbell wrote Pooni’s own biography entitled “The Book of Pooni” and bound it in leather.

Book of Pooni

Included in this sublime example of human devotion to a pet, are such gems as the Canna cats’ own political “Declaration of Independence” c 1948 and their list of demands- a veritable shopping list of Cat delicacies. “Large apple dumplings”….?? All signed of course by the band of renegades in residence at the time, as well as by the great Academic John Lorne Campbell….

Cats Shopping List

This list of mutinous moggies now forms the basis of a recent heritage trail designed on Canna for visitors and residents alike to enjoy and find out about the potential for the Past to Inform the Present.

Summer 2018 saw the Cats Gu Leor (Gaelic for Plenty of Cats)  ‘Trail’  installed during a two week artist residency, devised by Archivist for the National Trust for Scotland on Canna,  Fiona J Mackenzie and delivered by artist Yvonne Lyon and Raine Clarke of Glasgow. During the summer, Canna welcomes thousands of visitors who come to enjoy the natural beauty and incredible wildlife of the area but Fiona wanted to provide an activity which would be accessible to everyone, regardless of age or mobility restrictions (there is no public transport on the island and visitors vehicles are not permitted).

Fiona selected a dozen of the cats’ nomenclatures from over the years, purchased twelve life-size stone Siamese cats and invited the artists to decorate them according to the original cats’ characters.

These names are themselves, things to wonder at…. Sir Pooji Boyte, Kinkipoo, Mrs Pink, Wicked Willie,  Pinxtu, Pepa, Magnus, Carola, Reuben, Piccola, Tom Beattie and Pooni himself.  Each of these real pusses had their own very individual personalities and each makes an appearance in The Book of Pooni.  Fiona gave the artists a free reign to interpret the cats’ designs, with spectacular results!

CATS

Pepa, Carola, Mrs Pink, Piccola, Kinkipoo, Tom Beattie, Wicked Willie, Pooni, Pinxtu, Sir Pooji Boyte, Magnus, Reuben

The pusses, complete with collar and name tag, have been placed at various points of interest on the island and visitors can follow a “clue trail” and tick them off as they find them. Each of the stone cats has a story to tell and the intention is that it inspires visitors to ask questions not only about the cats themselves but about the Campbell’s’ lives and work on the island. Tom Beattie, the blue and black stripy puss, was a dreadful thief and prone to thieving from the kitchen larder. Pinxtu, is the Basque/American/Scottish puss who tells the story of the close links between Canna, the US (Margaret was from Pittsburgh) and the Basque country. John’s friend Saturnine Sagarzazu was a Basque and his daughter Magda was, for many years, the Archivist in Canna House.  Piccola, the white cat, has a piano keyboard painted down her back, in reference to Margaret’s Steinway piano in Canna House.

As they were in real life, each cat has a real personality and are particularly enjoyed by the younger visitor!

Mrs Pink

A young visitor meets Mrs Pink for the first time

Of course, the trail would not be complete without the feline who inspired the whole project- King Pooni himself. In deference to his regal pawsition, Pooni has been painted as lifelike as possible, no frills or stripes on him!  But he still has the wonky ear!

Pooni

Pooni ruled over Canna House and his subjects for over 18 years and made his presence felt to every person who came over the threshold. He even liked to lie on his “Mistresses” piano (he let her think she was his Mistress anyway….) and “wow” for a saucer of milk when he felt a little hot.

Steinway

Pooni on the Steinway. Image by Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell ©National Trust for Scotland

If we should ever be in any doubt as to the influence of this cat in particular, but really any cat on the island, we need only look at the front page of Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell’s work diary in which she transcribed her most famous song collection, c1953. A grubby piece of paper with indistinct pencil marks? Nay!   “Pooni’s tracks. Never erase”.

Testament to a favourite family member whose life left so much not only to the island but to folklore in general…

Pooni tracks

margaret john cat

Margaret and John Lorne Campbell, Canna House c1970

This blog was written by Fiona J. Mackenzie, (MA, Dip.Lib, MASP). Fiona lives on the Isle of Canna in the Inner Hebrides, where she is the Archivist for the National Trust for Scotland in Canna House, the home of the Campbell Collections of Folklore and Song. She is an award-winning Gaelic singer and attributes the work of John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell, their music, early film and photography, as being the sources, which inspired her to pursue a career in Gaelic song and Folklore. She has lectured extensively on Shaw’s work in North America and Europe including Harvard and St Francis Xavier, Nova Scotia. She has just produced the first collection of the photography of Margaret Fay Shaw, “Eilean” published by Birlinn Ltd.

https://www.nts.org.uk/what-we-do/history/canna-house

fmackenzie@nts.org.uk  @CannaNTS www.facebook.com/CannaHouseNTS

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